FASCINATING STORY OF MEPPS FISHING LURES FEEDS IMAGINATION
Andrea Zani is managing editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.
It’s not often this magazine can combine elements of multiple regular features into one grand story, but that’s just the case here.
Back in the Day, Taste of Wisconsin, Readers Write, Travel Resources — this story mixes elements of all three of those regular departments, even including a recipe, plus a fun fishing component to boot.
Ultimately, Back in the Day seemed the most appropriate way for us to label this tale, given the amount of interesting Wisconsin history packed into the piece. Longer than usual, it takes the place of a few of the magazine’s regular features.
For now, we hope you enjoy this special “Readers Write Back in the Taste of Travel Wisconsin Resources” combo. It all started with a letter …
I read Anne Sayers’ story regarding state-based outdoor gear manufacturers (Travel Resources, Spring 2021) and was reminded of perhaps the most famous of them all: Mepps spinners from Sheldons’ Inc., in Antigo. Ah, the memories of, as a kid, using a Mepps on Boulder Lake while staying at Echo Valley Resort. That was big-time fishing! Try one once and you’ll always keep a few in your tackle box — and one on your line.
Ron Skarie, Franklin
According to mepps.com, Mepps spinners date to 1938, when they were invented by French engineer Andre Meulnart.
In 1951, Antigo tackle store owner Todd Sheldon was looking to change his fishing luck on the Wolf River. He tied on a small Mepps spinner given to him by a friend, a World War II GI named Frank Velek. In two hours, Sheldon had caught four trout totaling more than 12 pounds.
Sheldon knew he’d found something special, and the lures proved successful for many more fish beyond trout. At his tackle store, Sheldon began selling Mepps spinners — imported from a French woman who sent them in exchange for nylon stockings.
When the lures began selling far faster than the woman needed stockings, Sheldon started buying them directly from the Meulnart factory in France. The Mepps reputation quickly grew, along with sales, and in 1956, Sheldon sold his tackle store to focus on his growing business of importing and selling the lures, eventually buying the French company.
By 1960, sales had topped half a million and soon surpassed the goal set by Sheldon of 3 million spinners sold each year. Mepps spinners were here to stay.
These days, Mike Sheldon has taken over the Sheldons’ Inc. business from his father Todd, who died in 1995. Sheldons’ corporate headquarters in Antigo, where the spinners are now hand-assembled, encompasses nearly 50,000 square feet.
There are more than 4,000 Mepps spinners and spoons in all sizes, colors and hook configurations. The original spinner, the Mepps Aglia, is said to have caught more trophy fish than any other lure in the world.
ALL ABOUT THE TAIL
Reading about Mepps’ history made us curious to know more about the popular hand-tied spinners, so like all good researchers, we dug a little deeper. It seems that what makes Mepps lures so successful is simple: squirrel tails.
“We’ve tried hundreds of other natural and synthetic materials: bear hair, fox, coyote, badger, skunk, deer, even Angus cow, but nothing works as well as squirrel tail hair,” Mepps explains on its website.
It’s the lack of fur on a squirrel’s tail that makes the difference, according to Mepps. Squirrel tails are all hair, while other animals have mostly fur tails. When used to dress a hook in the water, the squirrel hair, unlike fur, makes a rippling, pulsating movement to attract fish.
Mepps has recycled nearly 8 million squirrel tails since the mid-1960s — “We do not advocate harvesting of squirrels solely for their tails,” Mepps notes — and pays up to 26 cents per tail, depending on quality and quantity.
There’s a certain way squirrel tails must be saved for use in the spinners: Dry them with the tailbone in, for example. Check the Mepps website for all the harvesting and handling details and where to send them in Antigo.
A FISHING ICON
The Mepps squirrel tail lure is so iconic, it has been featured in “Wisconsin 101: Our History in Objects.”
The project — wi101.wisc.edu — is a statewide digital history collaboration from the UW-Madison History Department, Wisconsin Historical Society and Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Wisconsin Life” program. Individuals can nominate objects to be featured and may be asked to write the story of the item for the digital museum.
Joe Hermolin, president of the Langlade County Historical Society, is a regular contributor to Wisconsin 101. In 2015, he wrote about the original Aglia lure from Mepps — which Wisconsin 101 notes is a French acronym for Manufacturier d’ Engins de Precision pour Peches Sportives, or Manufacturer of Precision Equipment for Sport Fishing.
“Driving through Antigo, visitors are often puzzled by a sign proclaiming ‘Squirrel Tails Wanted.’ It identifies Sheldons’ Inc., manufacturer of Mepps lures,” Hermolin’s entry notes. “Tails arrive from around the country. …
“A typical Wisconsin squirrel tail is generally good for about 10 lures, but different varieties of squirrels from other regions may yield more. They may be dyed different colors for variety.”
These days, Mepps also may use buck tails for its lures to satisfy production needs, as squirrel tails are somewhat harder to come by, Hermolin’s story adds. He attributes that to changing appetites, with “decreasing interest nationwide in dining on squirrel meat.”
SPEAKING OF SQUIRREL MEAT
Like a long walk through the woods with no particular destination, our look into the fascinating Mepps story took us down yet another happy trail — and right back to our own magazine.
Looking to read more about squirrels, and their tails, we found a story published in the October 1990 issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources titled “Bushytails” about, you guessed it, squirrels.
The story was written by magazine staff and John M. Keener, who was then retired as director of the DNR’s Bureau of Wildlife Management. Keener’s knowledge of squirrels, apparent in “Bushytails,” covered just about every aspect of these creatures, from habitat and food needs to squirrel history to size, color and behavior of different species.
“If you were throwing a party, you’d probably label gray squirrels the ‘party animals’ and fox squirrels the ‘quiet drinking crowd,’” he writes. While grays spend most of their time jostling and chattering in trees, fox squirrels are a bit more grounded, Keener notes, “nosing around … sniffing for nuts.”
Keener also writes in detail about squirrel hunting — and eating — with a recipe for the post-hunt meal “concocted by UW-Madison food science professors.” Following are excerpts, including the recipe, because we’ll gladly leave it to the pros to explain how to eat squirrel.
Funny how you can start out with the story of a fishing lure and end up with squirrel for dinner!
Wisconsin’s statewide hunting season for gray and fox squirrels is Sept. 18 to Jan. 31. A small game license is required, and the daily bag limit is five. Hunting flying squirrels, a protected species, is prohibited. For details on all hunting in the state, check dnr.wi.gov/topic/hunt.
JOHN M. KEENER AND WNR STAFF
John M. Keener spent many falls hunting squirrels in the southern Wisconsin woods.
To my way of thinking, one of the finest ways to spend a fall day is tromping an oak-hickory woods hunting squirrels.
A quality squirrel hunt is true sport that takes patience, skill and the proper equipment. Take the time to study their habits a bit and you’ll see more bushytails whether you’re hunting or just enjoying an autumn walk.
Worldwide there are at least 267 species of squirrels. The common species in Wisconsin are the gray, fox, red and flying squirrels. Hunters seek the meatier fox and gray squirrels.
David Macdonald in his “Encyclopedia of Mammals” describes squirrels as “cheeky opportunists,” and I like that description. Squirrels are among the most widespread mammals because they are generalists adapted to a broad range of habitats.
For hunters and wildlife watchers alike, squirrels may well provide more sport and more enjoyment than any other Wisconsin mammal.
Successful hunters and squirrel watchers pay close attention to the shrubs and trees that spell GROCERIES to hungry bushytails. Both fox and gray squirrels eat nuts and acorns.
Nuts provide fat and sugars; fruits, buds, shoots and even insects provide better sources of protein. Everyone knows squirrels love to eat acorns. They relish them the way people do cookies — eating them from the soft dough stage through the time they are tough and dry.
Squirrels prefer the insulation and protection of winter dens in hollow trees to the leafy nests or dreys we often see high in branches. Dens are better buffers from rain and cold.
Hunters should look for squirrel tracks and signs near the edges of heavily wooded areas. Gnawed nuts, split acorns, broken branch tips, kernels of corn with the “hearts” eaten out, scats and nest holes are all common signs.
You may also spot some gnawed bones. Squirrels chew bones to get minerals and to sharpen their teeth, which constantly grow throughout their lifetime.
Squirrels are among the few quarry that allow hunters and wildlife watchers to get a decent night’s sleep. They are mainly active during the day between dawn and dusk, foraging most heavily from about 10 a.m. until noon and again in the early afternoon.
Hunters will do well to scout a hunting area by taking some fall walks ahead of time, then get into the woods at dawn or slightly before on the day of the hunt. Station yourself among some hickory or oak openings where you can get clear, unobstructed views of a few treetops.
Squirrels have keen eyes that can sense the slightest movements. It takes the utmost patience to plan clear, safe shots and wait until the squirrels are absolutely still.
Some people save the squirrel tails and share them with businesses or friends who tie flies for fishers. Prompt handling and cooling produces meat with no gamy flavors.
Several cookbooks suggest half a squirrel per person portions. Don’t believe it. We always plan on a squirrel a person and there are no leftovers!
The rosy to reddish meat has a pleasant flavor. A Texas magazine reports “squirrel meat was so much a part of the rural menu that the animals were known as ‘limb chickens.’”
That’s a good way to think about them. Like chickens, young squirrels are tender enough to be browned and braised. Older squirrels need to be marinated and stewed to make a tasty dish.
We really enjoy this recipe concocted by UW-Madison food science professors Mary Mennes and Charlotte Dunn.
Come to think of it, I’d better revise my opening comments. One of the finest ways to spend a fall day is tromping the woods, looking, hunting and cooking a few bushytails.
1 young squirrel, cut into pieces
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ cup flour a few tablespoons oil
1 small onion, sliced
1 tablespoon paprika
1 sliced tart apple
2 cups beef or chicken broth
small amount of flour and milk for gravy
8 ounces cooked, hot noodles
• Dredge squirrel pieces in salt, pepper and flour mixture. Pan fry in oil in a covered hot skillet for 30 minutes. Add onion, paprika, apple and broth and cover tightly. Simmer for two hours.
• Just before serving, remove the squirrel and make a gravy of the drippings by adding flour and a little milk to the pan drippings. Place noodles on a serving platter. Top with the squirrel pieces and pour over the hot gravy. Serve immediately.